The Arizona Cardinals are going to the playoffs. This season.
Read those sentences again. Yes, the Cardinals, a team that finished 5-11 a year ago, the ones who were openly mocked for laughing at themselves on "Monday Night Football" last season, will win their division.
For each of the past eight seasons, at least one club has won their division after finishing in last place the year prior. In 2010 it was the Chiefs, who were the worst team in the AFC West in 2009 at 4-12, then division champs last season by going 10-6. The year before it was the Saints, who won the Super Bowl just 12 months after finishing fourth in the NFC South.
This year I see the Cardinals continuing that stretch. Of course they have several concerns heading into 2011; no team that ranked 31st in offense and 29th in defense last year wouldn't. But for five reasons, I see the Red Birds as well-positioned going from worst to first this year.
1) Before looking forward, take a second to look back and ask a simple question: Why were the Cards so awful in 2010? Without a doubt, the answer is horrendous quarterback play. Arizona signalcallers threw for 10 total touchdowns a year ago, second-fewest in the league, only edging out the Panthers. Ten also happened to be the number of interceptions tossed by Derek Anderson; the team's other three QBs added nine more picks to that category.
To fix that problem, the team traded for Kevin Kolb, formerly of the Eagles. While he may not make anybody in the desert throw away his or her Kurt Warner jersey, Kolb is a far cry from Anderson. His accuracy and presence in the pocket should elevate the Arizona passing attack. Having one of the game's premier pass catchers in Larry Fitzgerald should make Kolb's transition to a new team a bit easier, too.
2) Kolb wasn't the only change to the roster since last season. Far from it, actually. Along with the new quarterback, GM Rod Graves signed TE Todd Heap and OG Daryn Colledge to assist the offense, along with CB Richard Marshall and LB Stewart Bradley for the "D." All four of those new arrivals should be Week One starters. There were also free agents signed to provide depth on both sides of the ball, an issue for the team a year ago.
3) Last season, the Chiefs went from worst-to-first thanks in large part to the contributions of the No. 5 pick in the draft, a defensive back from an SEC school, Tennessee SS Eric Berry. In 2011, the Cards will look to duplicate that feat. CB Patrick Peterson out of LSU elevates both the defense and special teams before he has even taken a snap; he's that good. The fifth overall pick has excellent size and speed and should be a lockdown corner and dangerous return threat. Fellow rookies RB Ryan Williams and TE Rob Housler — taken in the second and third rounds, respectively — will provide a boost to the offense, and fourth-rounder Sam Acho has the potential to be a dangerous pass rusher off the edge.
4) There are many reasons Arizona will be the team to make the huge leap up the standings. There are just as many reasons why the other seven last-place teams (Bills, Bengals, Titans, Broncos, Redskins, Vikings and Panthers) won't do it. Four of the seven will have different coaches when Week One kicks off this year than they did last. A few of them lost their starting quarterbacks. And even though some of them improved (such as Buffalo and Carolina), their divisions are so loaded with talent that even if they improve their record, they have almost no shot of topping the three teams ahead of them.
5) And that leads us to the fifth, and final — not to mention most important — point: The NFC West is garbage. I'm talking Green Lantern-level garbage. Last year's division champ, the Seahawks, went 7-9 and by most estimations, got worse this offseason. The 49ers once again are trotting out Alex Smith — he of the career 19-31 record — as their quarterback. Perhaps the team best equipped to top the Cardinals are the Rams, a young team facing high expectations, a story line that rarely provides a happy ending. To win the division, Arizona needs to only improve by a few victories.
The Cardinals are far from an elite team. There are major questions all across the depth chart and nobody even knows if Kolb (whose career record of 3-4 isn't much better than Smith's) will be worth the high price the team paid for him. The defensive upgrades may end up not upgrading much of anything, and as Fitzgerald, a free agent following this season, could wind up flying away like many other Cardinals have in recent years.
But if there's going to be a team that goes from worst to first and continue the recent NFL trend, it's got to be Arizona. Partially because they got better, but mainly because there's nobody clearly superior standing in their way.
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